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Turbulent Times – Hydrogen and Fuel Cell History

As a history essay, this treatise will dig into details –and into my previous articles– to illustrate particular actions, events or episodes in hindsight – which is what history is all about.

You may find some of the information in this and following short articles boring and tedious. Don’t despair, as more pieces of the puzzle fit together, a major, clear picture will emerge.

On the long passage to a Fuel Cell Vehicle (FCV) in your and your neighbor’s driveway, many problematic and challenging events have happened.

April 2006.  I’m gettin’ gas pains.  This is no April fool’s hoax.  This is serious.  Crude oil has topped seventy-five US Dollars ($75.00). The cost of ‘Gas’ (petrol) causes financial pain at the pump.  Petroleum, wrongly called “Gas” (gasoline) by most everyone in North America –whatever its price– is not a gas but a liquid. The “Gas” at refuelling stations should not be confused with Natural Gas, which is autobon based, or Hydrogen (H2), the “most abundant chemical substance in the Universe, according to experts.

From 2006, the cost of gasoline kept increasing; the situation at the pumps got worse. Much worse. On July 11 of 2008, a barrel of crude oil reached $147.27, hopefully, an all-time record, but not one to commemorate. Then, on December 23, 2008, the crude oil spot price fell to US $30.28 a barrel. Whatever the root cause for the great recession may have been, the temporary collapse of the auto industry and restructuring of General Motors and Chrysler was only one of the results.


Regrettably, someone reading this a few years from now might wish for the good old days of cheap oil.  Tensions between some oil producing countries and The West were at an all-time high in the middle of the first decade of this century. The pursuit of alternative fuels is proceeding at less than cruising speed, and in different directions.  Billions of dollars have been spent on this so far, and companies in the search for new ways to power our transportation systems are running short of resources.

As more and more people around the world drive, the demand for petroleum products rises and crude oil supplies diminish. Jane and John Motorist, representing all of us, cry out under the burden of ever-increasing fuel cost and ever more restrictive emission regulations.  Your boss will not give you extra petrol pennies for driving to work.  Big companies such as airlines, shipping companies and the like require and levy a fuel surcharge to survive.  Oil corporations make enormous profits while auto companies have record losses.

With all the progress and refinements made on internal combustion engines (ICE), it is hard to find an excuse for the fact that a certain popular SUV (sport-utility vehicle) is less fuel efficient at 17 l/100km (17 mpg) when the Model T Ford achieved 10 l/100km (28 mpg).

Poor motorists.  Despite the fact that the world will run out of gas, fuel efficiency has not kept pace with other progress.  Is it any wonder that we long for a new, better way to power our vehicles and heat or cool our homes?  Alternative fuels as a group hold great promise for the future, but none more so than hydrogen as an energy autorier to power fuel cells of various types.

The decades-old promise of hydrogen-fuelled transportation, fuel cell powered appliances, homes, offices, and factories, in short, the Hydrogen Economy, is taking a long time in coming.  Nevertheless, progress is being made on a daily basis and in every imaginable place.

Even though Detroit is ‘just down the road’ from Toronto (where yours truly used to live), Canadians can be proud of their contribution to the advancement of fuel cells; After all, Geoffrey Ballard is the one who really got things rolling; others almost ‘missed the bus’.  All this will become clear as this imperfect history about Hydrogen and fuel cells unfolds.

‘Detroit’ comes to mind when thinking fuel cell.  The automotive industry is among the world’s biggest and the most visible.  Fuel cell powered concept autos are the most visible expression of the Hydrogen Economy to come; various FCVs have been on display at auto shows everywhere on Earth for a number of years now.

We also have to look at hydrogen’s promise and potential from the view of other countries.  Not only North America, Europe or Japan, i.e. the major auto-producing countries, but all others countries around the world.  Iceland is striving to become the world’s first full hydrogen economy. One of the smallest, it has progressed perhaps the most.  Realizing the awakening auto industry in China and India, we should look at their approach as well.

Canada has recently announced a partnership to promote public education of fuel cells and hydrogen matters by establishing Hydrogen Villages here and in Wales, UK, the place where it all started.  A Hydrogen Village is a combination of related infrastructure and demonstration vehicles for educational purposes.  More on that later.


H2 City concept of the future from Denmark

Please note: Unless otherwise acknowledged, illustration in this series are from Google or Wikipedia, for which I am very grateful.

Next: Confusing Times          

About George Wand

George Wand
Our guest writer George Wand retired from the automotive industry. During his autoeer, he worked in R&D on advanced EV mobility concepts, and working with a museum drives his interest in history. These Hydrogen and Fuel Cell History items are but a small part of more than 750 articles he published in print and digital form. He compiled some of those in a series of eBooks from Amazon-Kindle. Racing to Preserve Precious Petroleum, and were released in 2016, Part 3 is ready to go by mid-2017. (Download ‘Kindle-for-PC’ or ‘Kindle-for-Mac’ and read on any computer.) Wikipedia, and EVWorld have referenced Wand’s thoroughly researched, plainly written articles. True to his slogan “On the inventive past the ingenious future will thrive”, Wand is passionate about sustainable mobility in a future without pollution. He has driven a variety of FCVs at Hydrogenics in his Toronto ’backyard’. An article about that will arrive here soon.

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